Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Film scholar Mark Bould’s Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City is part of the publisher Wallflower’s “Short Cuts” series of roughly one hundred-page introductions to different topics in film studies. While many of the volumes in this series are very straightforward and basic in their presentation, Film Noir is somewhat different. Bould offers no clear-cut definition of his subject, but rather spends much time and effort discussing the problems with doing so. Previous attempts at definition and their pitfalls are the topic of the first chapter, while the second chapter discusses the after-the-fact fabrication of the genre or style of film noir in French mid-1940s film criticism. Putting these historical perspectives and problems in focus like this provides an important tempering impulse to anyone who wants to think or write about noir; historically, it has been constructed and reconstructed as a narrative about the genre and what it was, is, or should be.
From there, the book goes on to cover cinematic precursors to American film noir, including Weimar cinema, French 1930s cinema, and 1930s Hollywood crime films. After this comes a lengthy discussion of films from the main cycle of film noir, dated roughly from the early 1940s to the late 1950s, where the focus are on films where entrapment or investigation are in the center. The final chapter introduces neo-noir, a concept even more difficult to pin down; “With the passage of time, the genre [of film noir] took on fresh concerns and […] exfoliated further, becoming fuzzier, harder to pin down” (p. 92). If The Maltese Falcon is a classic film noir, and No Way Out (1987), which is a remake of an earlier noir film, is unproblematically neo-noir, films like Die Hard (1988) or even The Big Lebowski (1998) contain elements of noir while simultaneously intermingling other generic traits, making them something else, while still remaining within the orbit of the genre/style.
The book ends with a discussion of two early-21st century films, one of which is perhaps particularly interesting here: Sin City. Bould writes on the penultimate page of his book that “one can see in Sin City‘s linear narratives and one-dimensional characters a reduction of film noir to its image(s) and the desire not to make a film noir but to somehow put the very idea, the megatext, of film noir on the screen” (p. 114). Although this judgment might seem dismissive, Bould continues to note that Sin City is part of “the next stage in the fabrication of the genre” and, like every film noir, it “rethinks, reconstructs and refabricates ” it.
If you don’t mind not having film noir presented in a neatly wrapped up package (and how often does such neat closure come in the films themselves?) but want to know more about it, Bould’s book is definitely worth the read. It’ll certainly bring a new dimension to your reading of Marvel’s “Noir” books or to any other comics that make claim to representing noir.